Bloodhound getting ready to go to work looking for volunteer hider with the Keystone k9 search and rescue team

Love dogs? Be a “Volunteer Hider” for a K9 Search and Rescue Team

Finally! A week or so ago, I got the email I had been eagerly awaiting – we were picked to be “volunteer hiders” for the local K9 Search and Rescue unit! Every Sunday, the Keystone K9’s, a Search and Rescue team based in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, meets to train their dogs.  They invite volunteers from…

Search and Rescue Keystone K9s Bloodhound volunteer hider
Meet Ethel, one of the amazing dogs that make up the Keystone K9’s Search and Rescue team.

Finally! A week or so ago, I got the email I had been eagerly awaiting – we were picked to be “volunteer hiders” for the local K9 Search and Rescue unit! Every Sunday, the Keystone K9’s, a Search and Rescue team based in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, meets to train their dogs.  They invite volunteers from the area to “hide” from the dogs to keep their sniffers up to snuff!

Sing, Unburied Sing Inspired Me to be a Volunteer Hider

I decided to become a volunteer hider after reading Sing, Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward. The novel recently won the 2017 National Book award, but activity inspiring it was not!  The story is a character-driven drama of a contemporary, bi-racial family living in rural Mississippi. The main character is 13-year-old Jojo, whose mother has a serious drug problem and whose father is in Parchman, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, for the vast majority of the book. Jojo and his sister live primarily with their grandparents, Pop and Mam. When I contemplated what activity to pair with Sing, I quickly ruled out experimenting with hallucinogenics, snorting cocaine or taking a toke or two.  I thought about visiting a prison, but found the idea too depressing. Ghosts play a central role in the story, but I’d had my share of them already.  And then, I thought about Pop/River’s responsibility with the tracking dogs at Parchman.  While I really hoped the dogs were not going to be a factor in Richie’s fate – (Richie is a prisoner and friend from Pop’s tales of his own time at Parchman) – I couldn’t help but think about how amazing it is that dogs can track a scent on command. I simply had to learn more about it.

Bloodhound getting ready to go to work looking for volunteer hider with the Keystone k9 search and rescue team
Getting ready to work.

How to Find Volunteer Hider Opportunities Near You

I discovered Keystone K9 Search and Rescue‘s need for “volunteer hiders” through VolunteerMatch, a website showcasing volunteer opportunities.  I signed up to get their email notifications and soon enough my friend, daughter and I found ourselves spending a crisp Sunday morning traipsing through a winter wonderland playing doggie hide-and-go-seek. If you are interested in being a volunteer hider with a Search and Rescue group, the folks at Keystone K9s suggest checking with your county’s emergency management agency or local police station and asking for the contact information of the Search and Rescue group they call in for help finding lost or missing persons.  Give the group a call and see if they accept volunteer hiders.  Not all groups do, but many consider volunteer hiders an important part of keeping up the dogs’ skills.

search and rescue unit volunteer hider
It was a lot of fun being a “volunteer hider.”

There is a Special Routine that Lets the Dogs Know it’s Time to Work

There are essentially two types of tracking dogs: those that track a particular scent and those that track the most recent scent. The Keystone K9 Search and Rescue handlers train their dogs to track a specific scent. Pop’s Parchman dogs most likely would have been trained to track the most recent scent in order to locate an escaping inmate on the run.  Because Keystone K9s dogs seek a specific person, to play doggie hide-and-go-seek volunteer hiders bring along a “scent article” such as a handkerchief.

scent article of a volunteer hider with the k9 search and rescue unit
Handkerchiefs make excellent scent articles.

The trainers then go through a specific series of steps to alert the dog that it is job time. First, the dog circles the area around the scent article getting a sense of what’s around him. Then, the handler puts the harness on the dog to signal the dog that he is about to be sent on a search mission.  After the harness is on, (but not yet snapped on), the dog is introduced to the scent article. One good whiff and he’s got it. The harness is snapped on and it’s go time!

k9 search and rescue handler and dog sniffing scent article during a training session with volunteer hiders
George takes a good sniff and then he’s ready to search.

Did you know we humans drop 30,000 to 40,000 skin cells every minute!  Those skin cells contain your unique scent and leave a breadcrumb-like trail for our canine friends to follow. On a windy day, your scent could travel far from your actual path, but the K9 searchers aren’t easily fooled!  One of the handlers told me they often see the dogs following the scent along a curb because the volunteer hider’s cells blow over and pile up there. The dogs also don’t let things like gates and fences get in their way. I had the honor of being allowed to follow along on a search conducted by Gunner, a Bavarian Mountain Hound.  When Gunner came to a closed gate, he first checked to the left and right of the gate. Finding no scent, he leapt up and put his paws on the gate to signal to his handler that he needed to go through in order to continue the search.  Such a smart cookie!

Gunner, bavarian mountain bloodhound out of the search for a volunteer hider
Gunner out on the search for the volunteer hider.

I have no idea how they train the dogs to follow a scent, but I did learn that some start as early as twelve weeks old! Patti, George’s owner/handler, incorporates sophisticated technology into her training exercises. The volunteer hider carries a GPS tracking device and George wears one on his color. Patti can then compare the path that the hider took to the path that George took and use the information to adjust George’s training.  It truly is remarkable watching them work and witnessing the dedication of this group of volunteers and their dogs.

GPS unit showing the path of the search and rescue dog and the path of the volunteer hider
The red line is George’s path and the black line is the volunteer hider’s.

It’s Fun for All When the Sniffer Finds the Volunteer Hider

When the furry-finder finds you each one has their own way of letting the handler know they have located the person who matches the scent article. George, a big Bloodhound, is so happy to find the volunteer hiders that all 100+ pounds of him jumps  up to give a big, slobbery hello! Gunner bounces up and down in front of you. No matter their reaction, it’s easy to see they are quite pleased with their accomplishment! We were certainly impressed!

George jumping up on a volunteer hider with the search and rescue group training
George loves finding the volunteer hiders! Photo from Keystone K9s Search and Rescue Facebook Page, credit to Bucks Dogs Photography.

The dogs love their treat rewards!

Volunteer hider with canine search and rescue group gives dog a treat
Gunner found the hider and loves getting his treats!

We really enjoyed our experience as volunteer hiders playing hide-and-seek with the dedicated handlers and dogs of Keystone K9’s Search and Rescue. These dog and handler teams are all volunteers and tirelessly practice every Sunday morning and every other Thursday to make sure they are prepared when the call comes in to assist in finding a lost or missing person. It was truly an honor to meet them and witness their dedication. I highly recommend searching out a group in your area!

Thank you for your support!

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If you are excited to experience being a volunteer hider, be sure to share this post with your friends so they can have as much fun, too! Thanks much!

3 responses to “Love dogs? Be a “Volunteer Hider” for a K9 Search and Rescue Team”

  1. […] I will update with what the group thought! The good thing, though, is that Sing inspired me to go play hide-and-go-seek with the Keystone K9s Search and Rescue dogs.  If you are looking for a fun, volunteer activity […]

  2. Nikki Avatar

    Hi there,
    This is super cool! I am actually trying to track down an experience where you can particiapte in the dogs actually catching you. I know that is crazy but for some reason this is on my husbands bucket list! He wants to be the man in the suit running from the dog. Go figure…. Any ideas on where? I can’t find anything online. Thanks Nikki

    1. Audrey Avatar

      Hi! I wish I knew, that does sound kinda fun, lol. Maybe one of the search and rescue groups knows? I wish you luck!

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